New Relief Options Up FEMA’s Sleeve

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If a dwelling or a structure suffered $17,000 or more in storm damage, FEMA's Permanent Housing Construction Program may produce a tangible fix. The PCH program was approved for the Virgin Islands Nov. 17. 

CORAL BAY — When Coral Bay resident Myrel Tonge suffered damage to his home during Hurricane Irma he took steps to get help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Now, several weeks later, Tonge says he’s still waiting for relief.

FEMA officials are encouraging applicants like Tonge and others not to give up. In a recent interview, they described the appeals process that could prompt disaster managers to take a second look.

At the same time, FEMA Media Relations specialist Eric Adams and Public Information Officer Bruce Bausch shared details about the rollout of a program designed to help those with significant damage. The Permanent Housing Construction Program. Information related to PHC was first shared on St. John at an emergency operations center meeting on Nov. 22.

Coral Bay was one of several St. John locations where storm force winds ripped off roofs and knocked down walls. Tonge said his home suffered heavy damage and is considered a loss. But details about the home’s status have persuaded him to skip the paperwork and apply instead for assistance covering personal possessions.

That option provided some encouragement. A small amount of compensation came through in short order. “They said they’d get back to me in 10 days, and they did,” Tonge said.

But FEMA declined to cover vehicular damage inflicted by Irma and directed him to seek an SBA loan. The displaced resident said he decided not to.

Yet Tonge remains hopeful. In early December he said he’d heard that more financial relief may be on the way.

The initial rejection of an application might be viewed as a final decision, Bausch said, but applicants have a means to seek reconsideration. “If you still do not agree with a determination made, you have a right to disagree. Simply write up a letter, explain why you disagree and ask for a better determination,” he said.

Part of that assistance came through FEMA’s Blue Roof Program. Qualifying homes which lost all or some their roofs received visits by the Army Corps of Engineers.

Workers covered homes with rafters still in place with protective tarps. But homes that lost rafters along with the roof were ineligible. That’s where the Permanent Housing Construction program comes in.

The program was approved for the Virgin Islands on Nov. 17. Those accepted into the program will get a helping hand and materials needed to make repairs.

FEMA spokesman Kevin Sur told those attending the Nov. 22 EOC that PHC could assist some of those structures left out of Blue Roof. According to a government website, those who participate in PHC will be provided assistance in the form of direct repairs to their pre-disaster primary residence in lieu of financial assistance from FEMA.

Adams said those seeking assistance through PHC can expect visitors.

The program is designed to help property owners sustaining $17,000 or more in storm damage but have portions of the structure that are still liveable. “FEMA will send out an inspector to look the dwelling over,” Adams said. “Each case is unique. Each person who sends in an application online is unique. What may be good for yourself may not be good for someone else,” he said.

Those who find themselves turned down after working through all available applications will be referred back to FEMA for disaster assistance grants.

“If it goes to SBA and it’s turned down by them, it’s an automatic process where it goes back to FEMA and it can be reviewed by FEMA. So it can be seen if the grant can be awarded,” Bausch said.

He added that through its disaster relief loan program, FEMA has awarded more than $33 million in the Virgin Islands so far. However the public information officer could not say how many Virgin Islands residents were served through those distributions.

At the end of the first week in December, SBA announced its disaster loan program had climbed to $100 million.

But neither Bausch nor Adams had any information on how many applications have been sent back to FEMA as possible grant recipients.

Those who want to know more are encouraged to visit the nearest disaster relief center. They are also directed to a toll-free number 1-800-621-3362 for voice, 711, or Video Relay Service. A special number is also available for the hearing impaired at 1-800-462-7585.

Facebook subscribers can also visit a FEMA USVI page. The most popular method of contact remains the FEMA website at www.disasterassitance.gov, the two officials said.

Adams said St. Thomas residents commuting to St. John to work are not limited to visiting the center nearest their home. Some recovering homeowners have complained about the need to stand in long lines to reach relief representatives. Adams pointed to some who have figured out a way to cut the wait time.

“I have a good friend who lives near Red Hook but he does not like to go to Tutu Park Mall because of the crowds. He comes here, to Cruz Bay, to look over his application with FEMA because he knows the crowds are less here,” Adams said.

A receptionist at the St. John center, located at the Legislature building in Cruz Bay said average wait times run about 20 minutes.

FEMA officials say the registration deadline for those seeking disaster assistance has been extended to January 8, 2018.